Neighborhood Character is Not Just the Built Environment

highland water tower 2Since I advocate for change in St Paul, an often Sisyphean task against the forces of KSPB, I often think about neighborhood character and what it means – especially what it means to different people. I have also struggled to find empathy and understanding for views that don’t exactly align with my own, and I really enjoyed Eric’s comment from a recent post about having this be the start of a conversation, not the end of it. It is easier to deal with opposing positions by categorizing those that disagree into stereotypes.

But what if we looked at “neighborhood character” through this definition:

“The complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation.”

Character discussions usually focus around a changing of the built environment, whether that is upzoning or bike lanes, but I’d like to take a slightly different look. What if the underlying feelings or attachment has more to do with a nostalgia, not to a particular instance of the built environment, for a hypothetical sense of “ethical traits”?

First, I believe that these “ethical traits” never really existed to the extent that people hold in their memories. The “good old days” were always more complicated than we imagine. This is good news because we can concentrate on the present and future without worry about duplicating some unrealistic idealized past. That said, I will acknowledge that until the 1950’s/60’s there was much more urban interconnectedness. Back then, the a built environment relied more on walking and transit to local commercial nodes, rather than dispersed amenities that required single-occupancy vehicles to travel vast distances. With that in mind, it would seem that current “neighborhood character” and parking enthusiasts are actually actively working against bringing this sort of interconnectedness back to St Paul.

Second, the “neighborhood character” is probably not what one assumes it to be anyway. For example, Highland Park is 45-50% renters but I’d bet good money that most people assume it is much lower. Why? Single family homes (SFHs) are prevalent in most of St Paul, especially Highland Park, but they are also very inefficient uses of space when compared to apartment buildings. This gives the appearance and feel of living in an area that is majority SFHs when that simply is not the case.


Ramsey County data showing SFHs vs Multi-family

Red: Single Family Homes, Browns: Multi-Family properties

Furthermore, ~55% of St Paul households own one or no cars. Anecdotally, my wife and I own a single car but rarely use it and commute via transit or bike. But if you go to any public meeting, people regularly talk about how St Paulites need their cars, most likely because that’s how they personally get around, and they assume the same of everyone else. Here’s another stat that contradicts a commonly-stated opinion: ~⅓ of St Paulites have lived in their current home for less than 7 years and ~70% have a longevity of less than 15 years.

Finally, we can listen to President Obama’s advice: “change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” If we want to see a friendly and empathic “neighborhood character”, we’ll need to start by looking in the mirror. When you find yourself driving on Jefferson, take a deep breath and remember that the cyclist “slowing you down” is a neighbor, a person, probably a father/mother, brother/sister, child, etc. If you’re upset about a new development proposal, remember that the city belongs to all of us, even those that aren’t yet here. Allowing new housing means more people get to experience our great corner of the world. Finally, from a direct action standpoint, cities are the front lines in the fight against climate change.

To me, “neighborhood character” is completely subjective. We’ll never all agree on a definition, but we can find common ground. A bike lane or 5-story building does not destroy “neighborhood character” any more than a parking lot or single-family homes do. By moving past the idea that there is a single character to the city, we can begin to find community in a shared goal to increase human connections.

12 thoughts on “Neighborhood Character is Not Just the Built Environment

  1. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Of course the character of twin cities neighborhoods may be quite hard to discern compared to, for example, Boston’s North End where succeive generations of Yankees, Irish immigrants and Italian immigrants have lent a very striking flavor to both commercial and social life of the neighborhood. And there you also have the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s house and the little Bullfinch cathedral.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I don’t like the idea of “character” being a single definable essence. There are many different, overlapping, and evolving “characters” of cities and places. Cities are a palimpsest of people and nature, constantly changing. This is why we tell stories and why we have to listen to others.

      1. james mullen

        Protean: People come and people go. Uses come and uses go. Get the frontages right and get the thoroughfares to respond to context and not capacity.The taxonomy to measure – Human scale. Full stop.

  3. Dan Choma

    It gives me great joy to see “character” defined as an ethical trait. For those of you that haven’t given me that one beer too many to hear my long and boring speech about the differences in morals and ethics, I’ll do a quick paraphrase here. “Ethics” is the field of study that deals with morals. And while morals talks about what we personally think is right or wrong, ethics is a study of our collective morals.

    This. Gets. Tricky. Fast.

    So while people in neighborhoods may verifiably feel a fear of change, it is imperative for the health of their culture and the ethics that drive it for them to accept and incorporate change into their cultural landscape. When you silence voices that aren’t a part of the hegemony whether they be cyclists, renters, or something else, you are making a bad ethical equation by ignoring those morals different than the hegemony.

    To me, I feel our cities need to retain the diversity that gives us a robust ethical fabric to build our communities. So thanks, Mike, for all you do. I know sometimes people don’t want to allow you into the hegemony and call you mean names like Bike Nazi for the work you do, but it’s people like you who are guarding the health of our children’s culture. Thank you. I am continually hopefully that people with morals like yours can contribute to our shared culture ethics and build a place where the next generation can do the same.

  4. Andy

    One comment I have regarding diversity in cities is this: To me, the diversity of a city is about way more than the inter-mingling of people of different incomes, religions, races, and views. To me, part of what makes a great city a great is the ability to find, within the massive concentration of millions of people, blocks of single-family homes on tree lined streets while 5 blocks are are major roadways with dense, multi-story and multi-purpose development.

    To the extent that people who are against dense(r) development in their neighborhood are able to articulate that their opposition is not based upon an animus of ‘others’ (e.g., those of a different race, religion, etc) I think their views should be welcomed. Do people really want Lake Calhoun ringed by 5-12 story mixed-used towers that are 35% low income just to say “Yes, we have density and diversity!” Or can we acknowledge that just as increasing density (and diversity of resident) is a great objective in many areas there should still be some areas where we only seek to increase the diversity of the resident, leaving diversity of density throughout the city?

    1. Serafina ScheelSerafina

      I think Prospect Park is trying to do that within the neighborhood–looking at attracting a diversity of density in the various geographical areas that make up the whole. High density north of Univesity and toward Stadium village, areas of medium density like Glendale and the apartments south of 94, and lower density in the historic district (which still maintains a plethora of relatively affordable rentals). The neighborhood has struggled for years to support a vibrant business community, and the influx of new neighbors will help the neighborhood achieve that. There’s a wary optimism. Many of the long-time residents are eager for housing options that might let them stay in the neighborhood longer than they will be able to stay in their aging, non-accessible homes.

      It’s hard to imagine all the effects of massive changes on the neighborhood one loves. People value their connections with the people and places where they put down roots, either long term or while waiting for the next repotting. But those can be disrupted more by relatively small changes–say, a new homeowner with vicious dogs and five vehicles next door–as well as the addition of 1000 new neighbors a block away. (I’ve faced both, and frankly, the first can be worse.)

      We need to build a culture where we can both listen and talk to each other.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      “Do people really want Lake Calhoun ringed by 5-12 story mixed-used towers that are 35% low income just to say”

      If there’s demand for it, yes. Not so we can say we have density or diversity, but so that people can live where they want, with access to transportation and amenities.

      I don’t see any great value in blocks of single family homes in the most in-demand areas, where more people could walk, bike and use transit to get to what they need. Those areas should be allowed to intensify and people who want less density should live elsewhere.

      Which I guess isn’t inconsistent with what you said. Not all areas need to be dense, but we shouldn’t be “protecting” areas to keep density out.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        “Ringed” is a huge straw man. I think having the North side of Lake Calhoun, along busy Lake Street, lined with 5-10 story buildings is a fine thing. Lake/Hennepin area should have density at the core, as should many of our arterial transit corridors IMO. I only wish we could build there while also making the streets safe and walkable, but one thing at a time.

        1. Daniel ChomaDan Choma

          It’s worth noting that Calhoun is currently zoned almost entirely for SFU and Duplexes max. (As is 2/3 of Minneapolis) We are frankly a very long way from having 5-12 story mixed use monoliths by the lake, especially considering neighbors of Bde Maka Ska are actively fighting to even allow 2 story units with 3-5 units.

          Although I can understand how switching zoning between R1 (wide open) and R6 (super dense) would be a big shock to the community, I think it is entirely reasonable to switch the zoning incrementally from R2 (still pretty wide open) to R3 (starting to allow the evolution of brownstones and 3-5 unit houses.)

          In general, I think we obsess over big projects in Minneapolis when there are a lot of very achievable things we can do incrementally and slowly. That slow evolution seems to be the best way to include as many community voices as is possible.

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